Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Let Truth Stand If Heavens Fall": The 1899 Weiss-Rich Correspondence

In August 1899, there was an interesting exchange of brief letters between two interesting individuals.  The one was Rabbi Louis Weiss (1848-1909), who at the time served the small Mi[t]zpah Congregation in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  (See, e.g., Yearbook of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1898-1899, page 106; Cyrus Adler, ed., The American Jewish Yearbook, 5661: September 24, 1900, to September 13, 1901 [Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1900], 460.  The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook, page 333, curiously claims that Rabbi Weiss only came to lead this synagogue in 1901.)  Rabbi Weiss appears to have also been a Freemason, as indicated in a piece he wrote for a Masonic periodical ("Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty", The American Tyler 16/8 [15 October 1901]: 171-172), as well as his Masonic treatise Glints of Masonic Light.  Rabbi Weiss was noted for his publications, including a short defense of Judaism against the arguments of Christian missionaries, Some Burning Questions.  The other party was the slightly younger Benjamin Erastus Rich (1855-1913), or 'Ben E. Rich', the mission president for the Southern States Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  A son of LDS apostle Charles C. Rich, his story has already been briefly covered here before

On the morning of 3 August 1899, the Chattanooga Times printed the following letter by Rabbi Weiss, protesting the mistreatment of LDS missionaries in the region:  
Dear Sir - It is indeed regrettable that it should be necessary in this land, where religious liberty marks the color of our banner with the sweetest hue of freedom, to express our most earnest protest against such outrages as has been - not for the first time, either - perpetrated upon some Mormon Elders in Georgia.  I can safely say that such action is not Christian; it is surely not religious; and it is positively not in accord with biblical injunction, interpret the Bible as you will, to outrage people in order to prevent propagation of their doctrines.  We may preach and teach against it, but it is brutal to raise a hand in violence.  The Christian world stands aghast when their missionaries are maltreated in heathenland; should we be silent when people calling themselves Christians, in this land where civilization kisses into life the sweetest culture that casts its effulgent rays into the breasts of enlightened people, menace the lives of missionaries of a denomination other than theirs?  Fie, and shame! that such be possible in our days and in America!
People that are afraid of their religion being undermined and weakened, either feel their ignorance and inability to defend their creed, or they must be aware of its feebleness and indefensibility.  In either case they proceed wrong.  They ought to either acquire sufficient knowledge to be able to stand by their religion, or if they find it weaker than others, adopt the stronger; by all means fear not to grasp the truth, even at the cost of nursed falsehood.  Let truth stand if heavens fall!  I should feel it my duty - duty to my God and to myself - to renounce my religion fearlessly and adopt and propagate that which I would find more tenable, and I invite scholars of other denominations to convince me of the inferiority of mine and the superiority of another, and so, methinks, must others do that are honest and positive in their conviction.
I need not say that I have no interest in Mormonism, but justice, divine justice and the honorable name of our noble country demands our voices to be heard against brutal assaults of men who are the children of God and citizens of this great commonwealth as we are ourselves.  It is sincerely hoped that the Governor of the great state of Georgia will take proper steps to bring the culprits to the justice they merit.
Chattanooga, Aug. 3, 1899.
The very next day, President Rich replied quite cordially to Rabbi Weiss' letter:
Aug. 4, 1899.
Rabbi L. Weiss, Chattanooga, Tenn.
My Dear Sir - Allow me to express my high appreciation and thanks to you for your letter published in this morning's issue of The Chattanooga Times, condemning the harsh treatment accorded our Elders by mobs in Georgia and elsewhere in the south.  It is indeed refreshing to have one of the clergy with sufficient strength of character to publicly proclaim for justice, no matter what the public may think.
We shall be happy to defend our doctrines with reason and Scripture against all comers, and to answer any charges preferred against us in the courts, but we strenuously object to the arguments of mob law, shotguns and hickory withes.  If every fair-minded citizen would speak out as you have done, there would be an end to such lawlessness in the south, our inspired constitution raised from the mire, and religious liberty and progression enthroned.
Popular opinion and prejudice prevents many from striking for the right, and we realize your perilous position in taking the stand that even a "Mormon" should have justice.
Again I thank you for the noble stand taken in our behalf, and for a higher civilization in the south.
Very respectfully,
The day after that, Rabbi Weiss sent the following letter in reply to President Rich; all three of these letters were then printed in "Uphold the Constitution: The Assault on Mormon Elders", Latter Day Saints Southern Star 1/37 (12 August 1899): 293-294:
Chattanooga, Tenn., Aug. 5, 1899.
Ben E. Rich, Esq., City
Dear Sir - Your favor of the 4th inst. came to hand; and I wish to say in regard thereto that I deserve no thanks for raising my voice in condemnation of an evil that should not exist in this land of the free and the home of the fugitives from oppression.  It is only deplorable that the clergy preaching "Peace on earth, good will to man," are silent in the matter, and in the very locality where the brutal depredations take place.  It is not for us to judge anybody's religion as long as he is a law-abiding man.  I am always at the side of perfect justice, regardless upon whom the injustice is perpetrated, and mob violence is always brutal.
Hoping that you will find the Governors of the various states willing to aid you, I am yours, very cordially,
For my own part, the most interesting sections of this exchange are to be found in the second paragraph of Rabbi Weiss' initial letter and in the opening line of the second paragraph of President Rich's letter.  Rabbi Weiss notes that, when confronted with the ideas of another religious tradition, the proper response is either to join it, if it is convincing, or to make a case against it, if it is not.  To do otherwise would be to shirk a duty to God and a duty to oneself.  President Rich seems to concur with this sentiment, and he declares that Latter-day Saints will be willing to provide exactly such a case in defense of their faith, civilly defending the LDS faith intellectually "with reason and Scripture against all comers".  I wish that this mindset were more prevalent today! 

As a short postscript, I note that this was not the first exchange of thoughts between the parties.  On 29 January 1899, during the controversies over the possibility of seating B. H. Roberts in the United States Congress, President Rich had been interviewed by the Chattanooga Times to offer a defense of B. H. Roberts and of the acceptability of polygamy.  Rabbi Weiss wrote a highly critical reply to the Chattanooga Times, declaring that President Rich's views were uncivilized and that the notion of religion being used as "a cloak for such nuisance" deserves "the contempt of everyone who holds religion as a holy spark of divine inspiration".  Rabbi Weiss claimed that polygamy originated when "it was the animal that predominated" in humanity.  Rabbi Weiss further argued that Abraham, David, and Solomon were commendable in their era, but that not all characteristics of their lives should be morally emulated today, and polygamy is one such exception.  Rabbi Weiss added that "millions upon millions of people call out their disgust against people who are governed by lust and passion for many wives and call it religion".  He also said that "Mr. Roberts is not fit on earth to be admitted into the sanctum of our families".  Naturally, President Rich wrote a further rejoinder to Rabbi Weiss (though the Chattanooga Times declined to print it), chiding the latter for viewing the patriarchal era so dimly, saying that Weiss and likeminded clergy would "join hands with Ingersollism in its attempt to overthrow truth", and he pointed out that, as a Jew, Rabbi Weiss was himself a descendant of polygamists.  These letters are printed in the 11 February 1899 issue of the Latter Day Saints Southern Star.  Given this history of exchanges, it is all the more interesting that Rabbi Weiss and President Rich were able to stand together in a few key areas later that same year.

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